Israel/Palestine: The Politics of a Two-State Solution

  • Israel/Palestine and the Politics of a Two-State Solution
  • When Peace Fails: Lessons from Belfast for the Middle East

Friday, March 15, 2013

What Will Bibi and Barack Talk About?

When President Barack Obama flies to Israel next week for his first visit as president to the Jewish state, what will be on the agenda for discussions between him and Prime Minister Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu? The answer to that may well stem from the purpose of the trip. I contend that the trip is largely for domestic political reasons. After Obama made his famous Cairo speech in May 2009 many in Israel who supported a two-state solution urged him to come to Israel and speak directly to the Israelis. Many American Jews also urged the same. But during Obama's first term the timing never seemed right. First, he got into a spat with Netanyahu over the housing freeze and Bibi's refusal to renew it. Then the Arab Spring broke out in the winter of 2010. And by this time Obama had probably decided that he wasn't seriously going to press for a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict during his first term and so he simply promised that he would do it if reelected. This was in the way of throwing a bone to liberal Jews in the Democratic Party who supported J Street and wanted Obama to press for a two-state solution. Meanwhile Obama tackled his real priorities of passing health care reform and financial regulation reform, ending the war in Iraq, and dealing with the escalating war in Afghanistan.

But Bibi put the squeeze on Obama by threatening to bomb Iran during an election year and by supporting his former boss in the Boston Group, Mitt Romney, for president. Obama defused this by tightening up sanctions against Iran, which he probably would have done anyway. And late last year nuclear talks between Iran and the West were renewed. Meanwhile, civil war broke out in Syria in the spring of 2011 and escalated steadily throughout 2012. This gave Obama two real topics for discussion with Netanyahu when they met besides a renewal of negotiations with the Palestinians.

So, here are the three main topics of their discussions in descending order of importance. First, developing a joint approach to deal with Iran is of prime importance. They must discuss what to do if the talks fail and what Israel might be willing to sacrifice in a "grand bargain" with Tehran. Second, how to deal with the escalating civil war in Syria and with the danger of Syrian chemical weapons falling into the hands of Hezbollah or Sunni Islamist terrorists in Syria. And then finally they may discuss what steps Bibi is willing to take to advance or prepare for peace negotiations with the Palestinians at a time when the Palestinians are still divided between Fatah on the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza. 

So, what are the prospects for agreement between the two? The prospects are probably the best in regards to Syria? Israel unilaterally struck at a convoy in January that was supposedly carrying chemical weapons from Syria to Hezbollah last year. Washington made no public protests. Both Washington and Jerusalem see the spread of chemical weapons as a threat. Both are not overly fond of the present Assad regime in Syria but are worried about what the alternative might be. They will probably agree to continue to swap intelligence on Syria and consult in future circumstances when needed. On Iran there is a fundamental disagreement. Obama has promised to prevent Iran from getting a bomb, but probably is not willing to enter into a third war in the Middle East in a decade in order to prevent Tehran from developing a threshold capability as Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea all have in the Far East. Netanyahu used Iran as a major issue to attract support for the Likud and to distinguish himself from his rivals. It also had the effect of keeping the Palestinian issue and Israeli settlements off the international agenda throughout 2011 and 2012. Netanyahu will probably leverage support for any eventual Western deal with Tehran into a payoff of increased military aid to Israel. 

This leaves the last item. Obama will probably just push for some symbolic act by Jerusalem. The Palestinians do not really seem all that interested in peace talks. If Obama seems to be pushing too hard, Bibi will probably counter with a speech about the worrying situation in Cairo to remind Obama about the type of neighborhood he lives in. So after exchanging a few words in private talks, Obama will settle for making a few references to a two-state solution in his open address to the Israeli public. Carter demonstrated that to be successful in Middle East peacemaking one must make it a top priority--an obsession even. Obama has neither that luxury nor that bug. So this really is not a Berlin Wall moment for Israel.

For analysis from former Mossad analyst and present Americans for Peace Now analyst on the visit see this Q & A on the visit and the new coalition.

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